The U.S. Department of Agriculture sits down to a smorgasbord of issues as it gets back to business in 2003.

Deputy Secretary James Moseley, on hand at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville, gnawed on some of the pithier provisions of what he termed a “full plate” of challenges threatening America's farmers, national security and international stability.

Homeland security tops the menu, which also includes international trade, implementation of the Farm Security and Rural investment Act of 2002, biotechnology, and U.S. farmer competitiveness.

“Agriculture is the key to this nation's well-being,” Moseley said. “If someone cripples U.S. agriculture, the result will be devastating.”

Negating terrorism, he said, requires pre-emption. “And everyone must participate in the process. We have to assure the bio-security of the farm, the security of processing facilities and of every piece of our production system.”

Moseley said the battle begins on individual farms but remains a national issue. He said the Homeland Security program recognizes the importance of agriculture and “will protect it against terrorism. It's good business. We will track shipments and protect agricultural imports.”

Programs extend “into every county in the nation,” he said. “The first line of defense will be state and local vigilance.”

In the midst of threats of terrorist acts, farmers still face the increasingly daunting prospect of making a profit in a difficult economic environment. “American farmers are under intense pressure, even with better technology, to stay in business,” Moseley said.

“Our window of economic advantage with new technology is shorter because the rest of the world is quick to pick up technology we develop. U.S. farmers have to adapt quickly to improve yields and quality just to keep up.”

He said the disappearance of the American textile industry poses a serious threat to U. S. cotton farmers. “Last year we exported more raw cotton than we used domestically. It's promising that we have an export market and that world consumption is growing, but the stocks-to-use ratio indicates we have too much cotton in the world.”

Without a strong domestic market, he said, the U.S. cotton industry will not maintain stability. “Can we compete is the wrong question to ask, however. We must ask how can we compete.”

Part of the answer lies in a strong commitment to research and development, “which this organization (The National Cotton Council) already employs.”

Moseley said key issues include a narrow genetic base, further improvements in classing systems that help identify high quality cotton, and international trade agreements that don't penalize U.S. farmers.

He said Chinese standards, for instance, “fail to meet criteria for international trade. They are in violation of their WTO agreements.”

He said U.S. farmers “need free trade. Without it, downsizing will be necessary and devastating.” He admitted that 100 percent free trade was unlikely.

“Currently, we export one-fourth of the commodities we grow. We export one-half the cotton and wheat we produce. Our challenge is to continue to expand markets and open new ones. We have to tear down trade barriers.”

He cautioned cotton leaders to insist on bi-lateral reductions in tariffs and subsidies and to insist that Congress include and enforce actions for non-compliance in any new trade agreements.

Moseley said he was “distressed” recently that a shipment of grain from the United States to Zimbabwe, part of the Food Aid program, was refused because it was genetically modified. “Countries have decided to allow their people to starve rather than to permit GMO grain into the country.”

He said the refusal was due to fear, not fear of any ill effects from the grain, but fear that the European Union would punish African countries by refusing to accept any of their grain into the European markets.

“Starvation in Africa will continue until the people learn to produce adequate food supplies, a task that will require biotechnology,” Moseley said.

He said biotechnology poses a dilemma in Europe, where their own GMO products enjoy easier access into markets.

“In fact the Eurodollar is printed on paper made from GMO cotton. It's okay for their money, but not for trade.

“Biotechnology remains one of the best tools available for addressing a number of serious issues, including starvation, erosion and environmental protection.”

Moseley said Mexico's refusal to abide by a 1944 water treaty poses another international concern. The treaty requires Mexico to provide 350,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Rio Grande and tributaries to the Texas farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The water debt has not been paid for more than ten years.

“Texas officials have been strong advocates with USDA and have raised the issue,” Moseley said. “But a number of issues are in play. It's not just water for the U.S. government officials involved. Still, it's a serious issue and it needs to be resolved. For farmers in South Texas, it is just about the water.”

Moseley concluded by encouraging farmers to do their homework and sign up to participate in the farm bill programs.

“We're concerned that sign-up is going slowly,” he said. “We're worried because the deadline is coming (April 1 to establish yield and acreage).”

Moseley said USDA officials expect activity to increase with the new year as farmers get back to work and into budgeting after holiday time off. “We expect an up-tick in signup. But farmers must realize that this program is not simple and requires some detailed work before farmers come into their FSA offices.

“We believe they have enough time to get it done. If we get close to deadline and anticipate problems, we'll address the issues. Until then, we expect to move FSA personnel around the country where they are needed to facilitate sign-up.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com